Failed NATO airstrike kills 14 civilians in Afghanistan (May 29, 2011)

On this day in 2011, a NATO airstrike aimed at Taliban terrorists struck two houses and killed 14 civilians, including women and children.

Terrorism, it is often said, is in the eye of the beholder.

HELMAND PROVINCE, AFGHANISTAN — Those of you who read these ‘today in terrorism’ blogs know that I cover a lot of ground. While I consider myself somewhat knowledgeable on a particular brand of terrorism, i.e. the Islamist variety, I do try to include other types for two primary reasons:

  • Writing about just jihadis gets boring;
  • There are many manifestations of terrorism (alas!)

But before we go on, we should every once in a while check our assumptions on what we mean by terrorism. I know there are other definitions of the term – I always fall back on that in the Canadian Criminal Code because, well, I am Canadian and I worked in counter terrorism for the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) which also used that particular rendering. But it does seem to be a concept many argue over (this week alone there was disagreement over whether ‘incels’ are terrorists or hateful misogynists, for instance).

In light of the worldwide counter terrorism effort a lot has transpired, some good and some not so good. Real terrorists have been ‘neutralised’ – either arrested or killed – and that is, at least in my mind, a good thing (a dead terrorist is a good terrorist as I always say).

We must admit, however, that mistakes have also been made.

Among these in my mind would be the US use of Guantanamo Bay to house and abuse terrorists, the decision to invade Iraq in 2003 and the continuing reference to the ‘war on terrorism’. With respect to the latter, our collective militaries have assumed their role, disproportionate in my view, in this ill-named effort. This is not controversial since who else do you send to fight a ‘war’?

One of the tactics used by some nations is that of air (or drone) strikes. The advantage of these moves should be obvious. Terrorists do not have aircraft (although they are said to have deployed drones, albeit simple ones with nowhere near the firepower of a national air force) and those who carry out such attacks are not themselves put at risk, unlike law enforcement agencies or ground forces.

But what if the strikes hit the wrong target?

What if, instead of terrorists, civilians die? This is exactly what happened in 2011. A NATO airstrike killed 14 civilians, most of them women and children, in the southern province of Helmand. The target was a group of Taliban terrorists, but the missiles missed, hitting two family homes.

What bothers me most, aside from the loss of innocent life, is the pattern of denial that often accompanies these ‘mistakes’. I have read where high level officials state that ‘not one single civilian’ has been killed in these actions. Thankfully, there are bodies out there that do monitor these acts and do on the ground investigations to put paid to this lie.

Unfortunately, the compound the insurgents purposefully occupied was later discovered to house innocent civilians

Major General John Toolan, commander of NATO forces in the Southwest region

I am not from the crowd that sees NATO as a terrorist organisation. At the same time, however, if we are to maintain that we occupy the moral high ground we must acknowledge that we do not always get it right. If we kill those who have nothing to do with terrorism we have to admit our error.

And we have to stop referring to the ‘war on terrorism’.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

Leave a Reply